Writing

Interview & Two Giveaways with Joyce Sweeney

I’m thrilled to interview super-mentor, Joyce Sweeney today. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Joyce! It’s great to have you here.

It’s great to be here, Mindy!

As a writing coach, what are the most frequent mistakes you see, and do you have any tips for fixing them? 

The most common mistake I see in beginners is over narrating, not putting everything into scenes and intruding on the scenes with too much narration. Summarizing dialog, telling the reader what to think and of course, warning them that the main character has no idea what is about to happen.  Narrators should be invisible if writers want to grab readers.  The most common mistake in intermediate writers is not being thoughtful about POV and choosing it intentionally or not being deep enough in the POV.  Most common mistake in advanced writers is not studying the structure carefully and making sure all threads are woven in tightly and things promised are paid off. 

Thanks for sharing that—it’s nice to know what pitfalls to watch out for.

Some people seem to find inspiration everywhere while others struggle to find ideas. Do you have any helpful ways for writers to come up with ideas for future books?

Writers should look into their own passions, obsessions and struggles.  Keeping a journal is one way to stay in touch with one’s own emotional struggles.  The keyword is, choose your subjects from your feelings, not from your intellect.  Your mind will always pick a topic that’s safe, or seems like it will sell or might please someone else.  If you ask your heart, you get a powerful story every time. 

Thank you! My mind is already reeling with possibilities—and I have a feeling your advice will help our readers come up with powerful new ideas, too.

What are the plotting issues you see most often? Do you have any tips for pantsers who don’t like to plan their entire novel in advance?

I think everyone should be true to their own nature.  If pantsers plot too much, they just waste their own time.  If plotters try to be spontaneous, they have trouble investing in the story.  So for process, do whatever you like.  Once you have a draft, then look at your plot and make sure you have a main character who is really actively pushing their way through the obstacles you’ve created for them and growing with each one. Make sure there is a range of emotion for the reader. Most people are weak in the act where there’s an emotion they don’t like to feel.  For instance I don’t like to feel sad, so I tend to rush through and gloss over Act 2. The Plot Clock is a great tool if you get lost and don’t know what’s missing in your plot. 

Is there a point when writers need to move on from a manuscript they love?

That’s a difficult question.  I think the thing to say to yourself is, I have to move on for now.  If you are getting no queries on a concept, you have to try a new project.  If you know you haven’t nailed a book, you have to put it aside until you can fix it.  But I, and lots of writers I know, have put books away for as much as ten years and then suddenly you take it out and you know exactly what to do.  As long as you still feel the emotions that moved you to write a book, it’s not dead. But it often takes years to see a book clearly enough to fix it. 

How did you become a writing coach?

Joyce’s bookshelf is overflowing with books from the authors she’s mentored.

I started all this back in the late 80’s, when the Florida Center for the Book asked me to teach five-week classes.  I found out I loved teaching craft and was good at it.  But I also saw that after the five weeks, people lost a lot of momentum, so that led to my ongoing workshops and that eventually led to online classes.  And now 57 people with traditional publishing contracts, so I know my mission is working! 

Wow, that’s an impressive amount of books. Congratulations!

It’s so hard to write the perfect beginning to a novel. What can writers do to make sure their books are off to a great start?

Funny you should ask.  Sweeney Writing Coach’s next webinar is today…Wednesday, February 8th at 7pm and the topic is Beginnings!  In many ways, there is nothing more important than a good beginning because this is how readers, agents and editors decide if a book is worth reading.  And for the writer, being on a good track from the start is helpful.  A lot of people think they should begin a book in a place of very high action.  Often they’ve been critiqued and told that.  But something exciting happening to a stranger is meaningless.  Job one is to bond the reader to the main character.  You can create enormous tension in the ordinary world if you know how to do it.

Joyce is giving away one spot in tonight’s live webinar: February 8, 2017 at 7pm – Beginnings. How to start, where to start, how to get all those important details in without a big info dump. There are huge pitfalls to writing a great beginning and the webinar will help you find those and avoid them This is useful for those revising or beginning something new.

Thanks so much for your generous giveaway, Joyce! One winner will be selected and contacted between 5 and 5:30 EST tonight. Hopefully the winner will be able to attend the webinar live, but if the timing doesn’t work, he or she will receive access to the on demand version. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guess what? Joyce decided to offer all of you the chance to win one more generous giveaway—an on demand viewing of one of her webinars! The winner can choose from:

*Beginnings!

*POV (Point of View)

*Flashbacks

*Dialogue

*Endings

*Marketing

*Emotions

One winner will be selected randomly by the above Rafflecopter on Sunday, February 12. 

The winner of the Beginnings! webinar on February 8th is…

Poppy Wrote

Huge congrats, Poppy! Enjoy your prize.

I can’t wait to announce the on-demand webinar winner on Sunday. The Rafflecopter will be updated to display Poppy’s name and the second winner’s name, too. Good luck!

Thank you so much for joining us at the Mixed-Up Files, Joyce! Find out more about Joyce Sweeney on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Joyce Sweeney has been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years, beginning with teaching five week classes for the Florida Center for the Book, moving to ongoing invitation only workshops and finally to online classes which reach students nationally and internationally. Developing strong bonds with the students she critiques and instructs is her hallmark. She believes that writers need emotional support as well as strong, craft-based teaching if they are to make the long, arduous, but very worthwhile journey to traditional publication.

Joyce Sweeney is also the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her first novel, Center Line, won the First Annual Delacorte Press Prize for an Outstanding Young Adult Novel. Many of her books appear on the American Library Association’s Best Books List and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. Her first chapbook of poems, IMPERMANENCE , was published in 2008 by Finishing Line Press, her second, entitled WAKE UP will be released this spring. She has had numerous poems, short stories, articles and interviews published; and her play, FIRST PAGE CRITIQUES was produced in 2011. She lives in Coral Springs, Florida with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Interview with Caroline Starr Rose

Today we welcome to the blog Caroline Starr Rose, whose rollicking adventure story, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, comes out tomorrow!

Desperate to get away from their drunkard of a father, eleven-year-old Jasper and his older brother Melvin often talk of running away, of heading north to Alaska to chase riches beyond their wildest dreams. The Klondike Gold Rush is calling, and Melvin has finally decided the time to go is now—even if that means leaving Jasper behind. But Jasper has other plans and follows his brother aboard a steamer as a stowaway.

Onboard the ship, Jasper hears a rumor about One-Eyed Riley, an old coot who’s long since gone, but is said to have left clues to the location of his stake, which still has plenty of gold left. The first person to unravel the clues and find the mine can stake the claim and become filthy rich. Jasper is quick to catch gold fever and knows he and Melvin can find the mine—all they have to do is survive the rough Alaskan terrain, along with the steep competition from the unscrupulous and dangerous people they encounter along the way.

In an endearing, funny, pitch-perfect middle grade voice, Caroline Starr Rose tells another stellar historical adventure young readers will long remember.

Why do you write historical fiction? Why do you think kids like to read it?

I always enjoyed history in school, but never felt particularly smart when it came to “knowing” history. There was just too much to master. Historical fiction was my true entry point into understanding the past. It went deeper and wider than a handful of paragraphs in a textbook and made history come alive for me. I’d like to think it does the same for young readers today!

I had never heard of the Klondike gold rush before reading this book. How did you first learn of it, and where did you go to research it?

I didn’t know much about it myself, honestly. When I was researching frontier women for my novel, May B., my mom loaned me a book called Women of the Klondike. My interest was piqued. News that gold had been discovered in this far-off corner of Canada inspired 100,000 people from around the world to try and make the treacherous journey to the goldfields. Somehow, my only school memory connected to this piece of history was Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.”

I start all my historical research by checking out children’s non-fiction on a particular subject. These books provide a quick overview and often point me to more detailed reads through their bibliographies. Jasper represents the very first time I’ve visited a place connected with my fiction. My husband and I took an Alaskan cruise during the summer of 2015. My only request was that we stop in Skagway, a town which is featured in the story. We were able to take a tour around town led by a Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park ranger. Talk about a meaningful moment!

How cool! What are some fun stories or facts you found in your research that you weren’t able to include?

Oh, man. There were so many. I included a good number of real Klondike nicknames in the book, but I collected a whole lot more: Snake Hips Lulu, Limejuice Lil, Billy the Horse, Hamgrease Jimmy, and the Evaporated Kid, who was “so small he looked like a bottle with hips.” Cannibal was the nickname of a man who ate raw moose meat. Old Maiden carried fifty pounds of old newspapers with him because “they were handy to refer to when you get into an argument.”

Swiftwater Bill Gates was so rich he occasionally bathed in wine and presented a dance hall girl with her weight in gold. It’s also been said Swiftwater Bill had only one shirt and had to go to bed while it was being washed. (I’m sure Jasper would have had an opinion on that!)

Those names are fantastic! There are a few scary scenes in this book, and I’m sure in your research you uncovered some tales of violence. How did you decide what was appropriate to include in a middle grade novel?

I can say I wanted to be truthful to Jasper’s experience while also being aware of my audience — what I felt would be appropriate. I know at one point my editor asked me how “dark” I wanted to go, that it would shape the tone of the story, but that I needed to go deeper, whatever direction I chose. My intention was to be truthful but to use a light touch and to always, always end with hope. I hope I’ve accomplished that.

You have written two beautiful novels in verse, Blue Birds and May B., and a poetic picture book, Over in the Wetlands. Jasper is a rollicking, voice-driven prose story. Why did you choose to tell this story in this way?  

I’ve kindly heard people describe my books as beautiful (thank you, by the way!), though this made me chuckle while writing Jasper. This book is decidedly not pretty, but homespun. While the specifics of the story were murky and changed over many drafts, Jasper’s voice was loud and clear. He’s based on Huckleberry Finn, so I knew I wanted to reflect Huck’s colloquial speech, his sharp observations, sweet gullibility, and tendency to speak his mind.

I knew from the beginning verse wasn’t the right fit. The book also wasn’t meant to be epistolary, as I first thought it would be. Jasper didn’t go in much for schooling, so having him write long letters to communicate the story just didn’t feel right. A traditional prose structure felt best.

How was writing this book different from writing your previous books? And how the same?

There are so many ways I could answer this! I’ll keep it simple by saying writing prose was like learning a new language, one I didn’t know very well. Scenes in prose have limitless space. I felt a little at loose ends until my editor reminded me not to rush through the story but to stay present in each moment so the reader could do the same. There was a steep learning curve with this one, and I’m so grateful for the way my editor helped direct my work.

Similarities would be my desire to make the past feel relevant, real, and interesting and to create everyday characters who are nevertheless brave. And full of heart. I love heart.

Did you have a general writing routine for this book?

My general routine for Jasper could be summed up as “write and destroy.” No writing is efficient, and this is the least efficient book I’ve ever written. I tossed two-thirds of it twice and added fifty pages right at the end. Unfortunately, my writing process seems to include understanding the story in the eleventh hour of the eleventh hour. This doesn’t make for easy work, but if I can remember I will connect the dots at the end, it keeps me believing it’s possible!

The voice here, with that striking dialect, is so strong. How did you maintain that?

All I can say is Jasper’s voice was my guiding light. I’m thankful that wasn’t subject to change as the story grew and shifted. Sure, I shaped specifics along the way — making rules for his grammar, picking certain Jasper-y expressions to use throughout, borrowing a Huck Finn word or two as a nod to Jasper’s inspiration (“disremember” is my favorite) — but his voice remained largely the same. It’s easy to slip into, like a worn, warm coat.

The relationship between Jasper and his brother Melvin is central to this story and drives much of the action. What made you want to focus on a sibling relationship? Are there sibling stories that you have enjoyed or that influenced you?

My boys, plain and simple. My husband and I are the babies in our families by a lot. I’ve always described myself as a semi-only child. So it has always been special to watch our boys, who are two years apart, interact with each other. Even when they’re annoyed, it doesn’t last long. They’re a team. They’re friends. They’re brothers. It’s a beautiful thing.

Honestly, I can’t think of any sibling books off the top of my head outside of Ramona and Beezus. In one sense, I had to pave my own way. I wanted devotion and commitment to be key to Mel and Jasper’s relationship and wanted these to remain strong, despite the conflict that comes with being siblings. Mel, as the older brother, has a deep sense of obligation for Jasper’s safety. Jasper wants to prove himself to his brother, first as someone deserving to travel to the goldfields but finally as faithful to his word. The Johnson boys are pretty great, if I do say so myself!

We agree! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Caroline!

Caroline Starr Rose is an award-winning middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable,* Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices,** Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico.

*American Library Association – Association for Library Service to Children
**American Booksellers Association

Katharine Manning will henceforth be known as “Snake Hips Lulu.” She blogs here and at The Winged Pen, and is a 2016 Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her middle grade book reviews are at Kid Book List.

What Hamilton Taught Me About Story

Hamilton is the biggest musical phenomenon of our generation. With multiple Tony awards, a Pulitzer, and tickets more coveted than the World Series or Super Bowl, Hamilton has captured America’s collective imagination.

There have been great posts about how Hamilton demonstrates innovative storytelling, the line-level genius of Hamilton’s opening lines. and what you can learn about story selling from Hamilton’s talented creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Today, I’m going to look at what we can learn about writing a compelling middle-grade story by listening* to Hamilton.

Rhythm & Rhyme

I could write a treatise on the beauty of Miranda’s use of syncopation, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme to create two plus hours of songs that get stuck in my head like no other ear worm I’ve ever heard. But suffice it to say that if you can write phrases and dialogue that use rhythm the way Hamilton does, you’ll have a story that librarians, teachers, and parents will love to read aloud and kids will love to hear.

Repetition Builds Character

One of my favorite techniques from Hamilton is the use of repeated musical and lyrical phrases to build character and theme. In a musical, as in a middle-grade novel, there is not endless time to describe characters in great detail because it would be boring. To keep readers/viewers engaged, you have to build character through action. And Miranda is masterful at that:

Talk Less, Smile More – This advice comes from Aaron Burr just after we learn that he is the one who shoots our hero, Alexander Hamilton. The tension between Burr as the enemy and Burr as the friend continues throughout the story. Hamilton eventually turns this advice (talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against of what you’re for) into evidence that Burr is more focused on self-interest than justice (if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?) and ultimately decides to endorse Thomas Jefferson for president, a choice that leads to the duel that killed him. Miranda goes one step farther, showing us that, at the end, Burr realizes that his legacy will be forever tainted because he killed an American hero to protect his own pride: He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it. I survived but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”

Bonus Point: Burr is a fabulous example of a complex antagonist. If you can create a villain that readers feel sympathy for by the end of the book, you’ve done your job well.

The Schuyler Sisters – Angelica Schuyler is my favorite character because of her complexity, but also for this line:

Listen to my declaration. We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m gonna compel him to include women in the sequel.

But she’s also a great example of how Miranda used repetition to build character. She loves Alexander from the moment she meets him,  yet gives him up out of loyalty to her sister Eliza. But even when he marries Eliza you know the sisters come as a package deal and that Angelica will continue to be a part of the story (I know my sister like I know my own mind…). And that makes her return in The Reynolds Pamphlet after Alexander’s affair comes to light even more poignant. “I came as soon as I heard…I’m not here for you…I know my sister like I know my own mind…I love my sister more than anything in this life. I will choose her happiness over mine every time.”

Why do you write like you’re running out of time – Eventually we realize Hamilton does this because he IS running out of time.

Bonus Point: Like a sympathetic antagonist, a complex and flawed protagonist makes really compelling fiction. My daughter was horrified to learn that Hamilton cheated on his wife because she loved him so much as a character that she couldn’t believe he’d do something so awful. And yet, she & I both still cry every time he dies.

Although we don’t have a full orchestra behind us when we write, we do have a lot of instruments in our ensemble that can be repeated to build character and theme: Imagery (especially when it is repeated to create a motif), gestures and phrases associated with a specific character, and rhythm that conveys the tone and emotions of a scene.

Foreshadowing

In some ways, the repetition itself is foreshadowing. We know from the first song that Hamilton is going to be shot by the end of the story. We don’t find out how until the second-to-last song. And yet, there are hints throughout. He writes “like he’s running out of time,” “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead,” “you have no control of who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” And it can’t really be an accident that the first duel (Ten Duel Commandments) comes right after Eliza begs Hamilton to “Stay Alive,” foreshadowing both their son’s death in a duel and Alexander’s own death, as promised in the very first song, at the hands of his one-time friend, Aaron Burr. Genius!

Am I the only one who is mining Hamilton for writing tips? What  did you learn from listening? Leave a comment below!

* Yes, it’s true, I have not actually seen Hamilton, only listened, as I live in the Seattle area, far from such an option. But I have hope that I will see it someday soon!